This may be the most anticipated basketball season in modern history for Kentucky fans. The 2013/2014 Wildcats are loaded with height, depth, talent, speed, explosiveness, NBA first round draft picks, veterans and arguably the greatest recruiting class of all time.
John Calipari's inaugural year with John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Eric Bledsoe was exciting because of Cal and this new crew of hot-shot freshmen bringing the swag back to Lexington. Fans were brimming with anticipation as the Calipari era started with a #1 recruiting class and the likely number one pick in the NBA draft with Wall.
The 2011/2012 year was heralded as a possible banner year with yet another number one recruiting class that included top recruit Anthony Davis, the number two recruit in Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, top point guard Marquis Teague, and a top 25 talent with Kyle Wiltjer. That team also saw Final Four experienced players return with Terrence Jones, Doron Lamb and Darius Miller. That team ended up delivering the goods by dominating college basketball and winning Kentucky's eighth national title and Calipari's first.
But this year the excitement is ramped up a notch. Along with the expectation of another title run, the fans are abuzz with talk of going 40-0. T-shirts have already been printed and social media pages dedicated to an undefeated season have already been created. John Calipari hasn't done much to put out the fire by continually saying that he would like to go 40-0 just one time before he retires. "I've said it for eight to ten years. Before I retire, I would like to coach a team that goes 40-0," Cal stated at Kentucky's media day. He has been close at UK before. His team went 35-3 in 2010 and he got even closer by going 38-2 in 2012.
But to his credit, Cal is trying to calm down the Big Blue Nation. He posted these remarks on Facebook after the Blue/White game:
Alright, #BBN, you’re getting a little carried away with last night’s scrimmage. It showed we can be a good team and possibly a really good team, but every team we play will be more experienced and execute better than us. We have to play harder than them and we have to be a great defensive team to have a chance. You should be excited and happy, but you also have to understand we have a long way to go.
But some of the current players aren't shying away from the undefeated talk, either. Andrew Harrison said of the 40-0 talk, "We definitely have a lot of talent." But most of them aren't talking about it, or when they are talking about it, they are giving smart, safe answers. Marcus Lee had this to say about 40-0, "Since I've been here, we haven't talked about it at all. We're talking of getting better and progressing."
Julius Randle echoed his teammate's sentiments by adding, "It's not even something I even pay attention to," Randle said. "Taking it a day at a time and enjoying the process. I haven't even played a college game yet. So I can't speak to what we can do."
While John Calipari has his dream and the players just want to let the season take care of itself, the Big Blue Nation has given the possibility of going undefeated with this current team a life of its own.
Going undefeated is not an easy thing to do. There is a reason that no team has done it since Bobby Knight's Hooisers did it by going 32-0 in 1976. A lot has changed since then. Players are bigger, faster and stronger; there is more parity in college basketball; and they play more regular season and tournament games.
I've seen some teams in my lifetime that could have gone undefeated. The 1996 Kentucky team is the first one that comes to mind, but they lost two games. The 2005 North Carolina team was stacked but they lost four games. And, of course, the 2012 champs lost to Indiana on the road by a buzzer beater and lost to Vanderbilt in the SEC title game in a contest that many argued was a game that they needed to lose before their long tournament run. But what does each one of those teams have in common? While they lost during the regular season, they were the last team standing in April.
I'm not against going 40-0, in fact I think it would be a historical feat that may not be duplicated for decades to come. Most sports pundits and college basketball analysts feel that it cannot be done with the current make up of college basketball. John Calipari has defied history and convention during his stint at Kentucky, so why stop now?
But building up the idea of going 40-0 has gotten out of hand. It's putting unfair expectations on a young, inexperienced team that has a very difficult schedule. Michigan State is lurking around the corner in two weeks. The ‘Cats have to travel to Chapel Hill and they will also welcome a very talented Louisville team into Rupp Arena. And that's all before they play the Florida Gators twice in the SEC. And then they have the grind of the SEC tournament. And then the mountain that is the NCAA tournament.
So what happens if Kentucky loses a game? Or two games? Or (gasp!) three games? Do fans that purchased the 40-0 shirts get refunds? Do the 40-0 web pages cause the internet to collapse?
Think about it in these terms; Indiana was the favorite to win the national title last season. They were the preseason #1 team; they had Cody Zeller, a preseason All American and the possible top pick in the NBA draft; and they had tournament experienced. That team flamed out in the Sweet Sixteen. Tom Crean and the Hoosiers would have been mercilessly mocked if they had printed preseason "2013 National Champions" T-Shirts.
Think about what's going to happen if and when the Wildcats drop a game. Personally I don't care what other fan bases think about us or our team, but we have to prepare ourselves for the consequences of announcing to the world that our ‘Cats aren't going to lose. The players also couldn't care less about what Joe Blow Louisville fan thinks either, but they do care that Tom Izzo is preparing his team to "...kick Kentucky's ass." Opposing players are gearing up to play the game of their lives against the Wildcats. Like our fearless leader loves to say, "We're everybody's Super Bowl."
While there isn't much we can do about the 40-0 hype, the damage has already been done; we can remember that the end goal is a national championship. Ask Tom Brady and the New England Patriots how awesome it was going 16-0 and then losing in the Super Bowl to the New York Giants. I am sure if every player on that Pats team asked what was more important, going undefeated or winning a Super Bowl, each player would answer "Super Bowl".
Let's enjoy this season. It's going to be special, it's going to be fun, and it's only going to last a few months. Let's take a cue from the players and take it one game at a time and let the season happen the way it's supposed to.
But 40-0 would be something else, wouldn't it?